AILSA CHANG, HOST:
So how did you spend your summer vacation? President Trump spent much of his in attack mode against fellow Republicans. He has criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain at a campaign rally in Phoenix this week.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: One vote away. I will not mention any names. Very presidential, isn't it? Very presidential. And nobody wants me to talk about your other senator, who's weak on borders, weak on crime. So I won't talk about him.
CHANG: Now, congressional Republicans spent their August break trying to start a very different conversation. They were hoping to spend the month talking about their next big legislative push to overhaul the entire federal tax code. Here's Paul Ryan yesterday at a Boeing plant in Washington.
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PAUL RYAN: Our goal is to get it done this year, so that when you roll out of bed on January 1, you know, 2018, you're experiencing a new tax system, so that businesses have a certainty they need to make good business decisions to grow, to invest, to reach and expand.
CHANG: So which conversation is more likely to dominate when Congress returns to Washington after Labor Day? NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis is here to help sort that out. Hey, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So, I mean, the president is asking for cooperation from Congress, but he keeps going after his fellow Republicans. Is that going to make it harder to get things done? I mean, we're talking about overhauling the entire tax code.
DAVIS: You know, if one of the lessons of health care is that it's - one, it's really hard to do big things, and two, you really need everybody in the boat rowing in the same direction. You need the president on the same page, Congress on the same page and their outside allies on the same page. This month, they were not on the same page. When Congress left town, the goal was to spend the month of August sparking a national conversation about the need to change the tax code. Was that the conversation the nation was having this summer?
CHANG: Was that the conversation the nation was listening to this summer?
DAVIS: Exactly. So I would say that there is a profound sense of maybe missed opportunity and frustration among congressional Republicans, but they still share the same end goal with the president. The president also, this week, talked about wanting to reform the tax code. So they believe that while maybe they weren't on the same page, they still want to accomplish the same things.
CHANG: Now, I know the Senate, as acrimonious as it can be, can be a very protective place - protective of its own. How have congressional Republicans responded to President Trump's attacks?
DAVIS: One, they have not responded in kind. You know, they don't see any advantage just sort of trying to argue with the president because he is still fundamentally way more popular than Congress or congressional leaders. But it is frustrating. I think Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had a great line in The New York Times this week where he said, the Senate is kind of like NATO and Article 5, an attack against one of us is an attack against all of us.
And again, you know, the president seems to use sort of a bullying tactic as a way to get to yes. But previously, when they've tried to do similar things to Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska or John McCain in the past, doesn't really seem to work. Senators aren't easy to bully.
CHANG: So September is right around the corner. There's a stack of items, some must-pass items to deal with. How painful is September going to be? What is the agenda?
DAVIS: The question mark is really, how does the president play this? The two things that they must get done in September is they have to come up with some deal to keep the government running, even in the short term. And they have to agree to raise the debt ceiling, which is the nation's borrowing limit, essentially America's credit card.
DAVIS: In the past, as you well know, the question mark was always, can Congress pass it?
DAVIS: And this time, the uncertainty isn't really coming from Capitol Hill. Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan this week said, we want to keep the government open. We want to raise the debt limit. The question is particularly on the government funding. When that bill gets to President Trump's desk, is he going to sign it? And this week in that Phoenix - at that rally in Phoenix, he suggested he might not because the president wants money to build the wall against the U.S. - along the U.S.-Mexico border. And he's saying, if you don't send it to me, I might be willing to shut down the government.
CHANG: Yeah, that wall, that was a major campaign promise from Trump, but how much of him mentioning it over and over again is just him playing to his base?
DAVIS: I think that so much of the president's tactical strategy this month was about keeping that base energized. And the wall is probably base issue number one, what the clash is going to be as well. Sure, that's good politics. That's great red-meat politics. It doesn't meet the realities of governing.
And the reality of governing is that even though Republicans can control Washington, Democrats still have a voice. And Democrats in the Senate are saying, you're not going to get that wall funding. You need to find another way to do it. And that is setting Washington up for yet another sort of self-inflicted crisis about keeping the government open.
CHANG: And just really quickly, the president says, health care is not over. The fight is not over. Is it over or not?
DAVIS: You know, they're never going to say it's over, but it's largely over, particularly in the Senate. Senate Republicans and Democrats are already working together on a short-term bipartisan fix to sort of prop up the markets. So once again, President Trump and Senate Republicans are having a very different conversation.
CHANG: All right. NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you, Sue.
DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.